MIAMI — Entering last year’s playoffs, a perception remained that Erik Spoelstra just rolled out the balls and watched his Miami Heat stars go to work.
During his first two seasons with the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Spoelstra got a grand total of one first-place and one third-place vote in balloting for Coach of the Year. Last season, his name wasn’t listed on a single one of the 119 media ballots despite his team having the second-best record in the East. He was the only one of 12 coaches whose teams had a top-six playoff seed to not even get a third-place vote.
Spoelstra, though, gained plenty of acclaim after the votes were in for coaching the Heat to the NBA title despite not having Bosh for much of the playoffs. Now, he’s getting even more of it.
Spoelstra, for instance, really showed last Sunday he doesn’t always need a bevy of stars to win big games. With James, Wade and point guard Marcus Chalmers resting nagging injuries, Spoelstra’s undermanned gang went into San Antonio and beat the team with the NBA’s second-best record 88-86.
If a game like that isn’t the final push for Spoelstra to be named NBA Coach of the Year, what is? The Heat (58-16) figure to finish with the league’s top record, they’ve beaten every team in the NBA at least once and they recently had a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in history.
“It’s a no-brainer,’’ Heat guard Ray Allen said about how Spoelstra should win the award.
Yes, he should. The honor often goes to a coach who turned around a team, but there’s not a plethora of such candidates this season.
True, Mark Jackson’s Golden State gang is 43-32 after being 23-43 during last season’s lockout campaign. But it hasn’t helped that his Warriors have gone just 13-15 since a 30-17 start.
Among coaches with gaudy records, Denver’s George Karl (51-24) and Memphis’ Lionel Hollins (51-24) are in the mix and Tom Thibodeau has kept Chicago (40-33) competitive without injured Derrick Rose and numerous defections. But it’s hard to top what Spoelstra has done, especially during the second half of the season.
Defending champions often go into a slumber, even ones that end up repeating. Of all the teams that have won two or three straight titles over the past two decades, all had their top record in the first season they won it all (1994 Houston, 1996 Chicago, 2000 Lakers and 2009 Lakers).
It looked as if the Heat might have a worse record than last season’s 46-20 (.697) when they were 29-14 (.674) following a Feb. 1 loss at Indiana. But Spoelstra got the attention of his players then and they started the epic 27-game streak.
Spoelstra has shown the ability to get his superstars to buy into what he believes is for the betterment of the team. Bosh has moved from power forward to center with few complaints. Normally a small forward, James has accommodated Spoelstra by playing heavy minutes at the power spot. And Wade has been willing to take a secondary role behind James.
“That’s what they had to do if the team was going to reach its potential,’’ said Hall of Fame coach and ESPN Radio analyst Jack Ramsay, who has a vote for Coach of the Year and is still deciding between Spoelstra and Hollins. “Everybody has to play for the team. And not everybody is willing to do that. (Spoelstra) gets them to do it.’’
Bosh said “the only candidates should be (Spoelstra) and George Karl’’ for Coach of the Year. He said Spoelstra has gained his respect and that “you listen to the guy that’s calling the shots.’’
One way Spoelstra has gained the trust of players is his preference to avoid the limelight. He appears uninterested in adulation, wanting the focus to be on the players and, of course, on winning.
“He always makes it about us,’’ said Heat guard James Jones. “It’s always about us, what we can do to get better. … There’s no agenda. His only desire, just like ours, is to win.’’
The Heat have been doing plenty of that this season, and that hasn’t hurt lately when it comes to being named Coach of the Year. Of the last four awards handed out, three went to coaches whose teams had or were tied for the NBA’s best record: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich (2011-12), Thibodeau (2010-11) and then-Cleveland coach Mike Brown (2008-09).
It doesn’t matter, though, what statistics are thrown out to Spoelstra. He’s unexcited about even being in the conversation for Coach of the Year.
“That is clearly the last thing I am thinking about,’’ he said. “And I say that with no disrespect. I don’t know if that has helped anybody win a title after (having been named Coach of the Year earlier in the playoffs).’’
Don’t expect the Heat to expend much energy touting Spoelstra for the award. He said they “don’t have spin doctors.’’
As for Spoelstra this season, he’s been a win doctor.
Who’s Hot: It’s only been two hot games, but that’s a lot considering Heat guard Mike Miller barely has played all season. Dusted off due to recent recent injuries to starters, Miller has averaged 15.0 points the past two games while having shot 8 of 14 (57.1 percent) from 3-point range. Miller, who regularly has battled injuries in his three Miami seasons, is showing he might ready to step up again in the playoffs. A hobbling Miller shot 7 of 8 from 3-point range and scored 23 points in Game 5 of the Finals last June against Oklahoma City.
Who’s Not: While Miller is showing he could be counted on in the postseason, it remains unclear about forward Rashard Lewis. Given starts in the past two games due to injuries, Lewis averaged a meager 3.5 points and 3.0 rebounds in 29.0 minutes while shooting just 3 of 13 (23.1 percent). Lewis did have four blocks last Sunday at San Antonio, but he followed that up by going scoreless in 28 minutes Tuesday against New York.
1. When James, Wade and Chalmers were all sat down at San Antonio, some wondered if the Heat were simply trying to get back at the Spurs for sending home starters Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green from a Nov. 29 game at Miami and incurring a $250,000 fine from the NBA.
The three Miami players also sat out Tuesday against hated rival New York and probably won’t play Friday at Charlotte. Also likely to join them in civilian clothes will be Allen, bothered by a sore ankle.
James has a hamstring problem and Wade and Chalmers have sprained ankles. So how rare is it for James to miss three straight games?
It hasn’t happened since he rested for the final four regular-season games in April 2010, when he was with Cleveland.
2. Miami’s 27-game winning streak, which ended March 27, has given the Heat a needed security blanket entering the playoffs.
The Heat, after having some uneven periods during the first half of the season, have gained an even better ability to turn it on when needed. And now starters can rest without feeling there is too much unfinished business left in the regular season.
“The No. 1 thing is obviously to try to get as healthy as we can can and obviously that’s a priority,’’ Spoelstra said of his goals for the last two weeks of the season. “We have time to still try to improve, not just stay in rhythm but to improve.’’
One way Spoelstra believes the Heat can improve is by players who haven’t logged much time this season getting a chance to step up. That’s what Miller has done the past two games.
3. There are still some statistical goals for the Heat to shoot for in their final eight games of the season.
The Heat need to win just half to break the team record for wins a season. The 1996-97 outfit went 61-21.
“It could possibly be the best (Heat) team ever,’’ Alonzo Mourning, a center on the 1996-97 outfit and now a Miami front-office official, said about this year’s team. “I hope they beat that 61.’’
If the Heat close 7-1, they would become just the 16th team in NBA history to win 65 or more games. If they go 6-2, they would be just the 19th to win 64 or more.
Reaching that kind of rarified air could be tough due to the Heat resting players. But they did win at San Antonio with an undermanned gang, so it’s possible.
Quotes of the week
“I don’t think that team will lack confidence, I guess to anybody. … They’ve handled us three times and you have to give them credit for that, because they’ve played extremely well in those games.’’
— Erik Spoelstra, on if the Heat faces New York in the playoffs after losing the season series 3-1.
“For me, inactivity it hurts me more than overactivity. So I like the pounding on my joints so at least I see where I’m at.’’
— Ray Allen, who says the right ankle he had surgery on last summer is still at just about “80 percent” and who actually might be convinced Friday it’s best to sit out.
“He don’t give me no space. He’s on me like white on rice.”
— New York’s Carmelo Anthony, on how close Miami’s Shane Battier guards him, although it didn’t matter much Tuesday when Anthony scored 50 points in a 102-90 win.
0: Times in their previous 24 seasons, the Heat have had the NBA’s top record. That should happen for the first time for Miami, which has 2 ½-game lead over the Spurs (56-19) and hold the tiebreaker.
11: Consecutive wins the Heat have over Charlotte, which is where they play Friday.
14: Consecutive regular-season wins the Heat have over Philadelphia, which comes Saturday to Miami.
More games that look like split-squad spring training affairs. The Heat will no doubt rest some players for what are mostly uninspiring games. They play at Charlotte on Friday, host Philadelphia on Saturday and Milwaukee on Tuesday and are at Washington next Wednesday. The game against the Bucks at least should have some intrigue due to it being a likely first-round playoff preview. Tower of Power?
Perhaps even the Heat’s B team is. Without three starters, Miami won at San Antonio, which has the NBA’s second-best record. That game was being looked at by many as a preview of the Finals, but losing to Heat Lite has led to some wondering if the aging Spurs can get that far.